When Marine veteran Daniel Rey Wolfe signed on to Facebook on Monday night and announced he was taking his own life, documenting the process in a graphic timeline of final self-portraits, his former comrades worked quickly and purposefully to save their brother-in-arms.
Their best efforts came too late. Wolfe had killed himself—a fact that Facebook reminded them of over the next two days, as the social-media site refused to remove the grisly series of photographs he'd taken of his suicide, despite the requests of his friends and veterans' organizations.
Wolfe was an amphibious assault vehicle crewman in the Marine Corps, a father, and a lifelong artist with a passion for loud music and graphic design. He also appeared to struggle with money and politics and purpose—struggles that culminated in Wolfe taking his own life with a blade in a squat outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Monday night.
Wolfe's passing is the kind of postwar tragedy that illustrates how American veterans still need more resources and counseling than they're getting, as the wars wind down and the Department of Veteran Affairs wrestles with corruption and increased workloads.
But his suicide also throws into relief the difficulties that social networks face in creating a one-size-fits-all policy to moderate photographs and status updates. And, critically, it reveals a macabre blind spot in Facebook's "community standards," behind which a suicide victim's final moments can appear on the site indefinitely, despite the protestations of people who loved him.
"His friends and family were exposed to images they should never had to [have] seen," Douglas Tripp, one of Wolfe's former Marine comrades told me in an email. "Who needs to see their son, brother, cousin or friend like that? They will remove a picture of a bare ass or exposed breast with the quickness. How are those more dangerous than a young man mutilating himself before he commits suicide?"
Wolfe served in the Corps from 2004 to 2008, including a trip to Iraq. An imposing guy at 6'3" and anywhere from 260 to 300 pounds, he "had a good personality and could burn pretty much anyone," one shipmate said of him in a Facebook tribute. His social media postings depict a man with a soft spot for his drawings, his daughter, and guns, not unlike many of his comrades.
But he'd had a rough time of it lately. In recent years, he collected a string of speeding tickets and two arrests for undisclosed charges in Southern California. He was taken in for public intoxication in Texas. And he was known by the police—not as a troublemaker, but as a troubled man—in his latest haunt, the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow. "We had run into Daniel one time or two," says Maj. Mark Irwin, the spokesman for Broken Arrow's police department, "going from place to place." He was known as a guy who was "down on his luck," and several officers in the department with prior military service had offered him help in the past: "One of the officers, she gave him a little bit of money."
Perhaps it was the transition to civilian life, which had bothered so many of the fellow Marines who had served in Wolfe's unit. "You get home and it feels like you have been stuck in time, you feel isolated, you do the things that you did in the Corps—wake up, PT, make your bed," Tripp says. "The way you talk the way you interact with other Marines isn't social acceptable. Friends don't understand what you went through. You have no job, nothing to do. If you do have a job, it feels unimportant."
Whatever troubled Wolfe, by Sunday night he'd had enough. His Facebook updates began to take a morose turn.
After that, Wolfe posted four photographs. The first one is of half-empty bottles of vodka and Jack Daniel's on a house floor. The corner of a handwritten note pokes into the frame on one side, with two words visible: "ROT IN".
The caption Wolfe gave the photo was "Byeee bitches."
The final three photographs show a left leg and arm with numerous cuts and scratches grooved into them. Deep punctures are visible on the leg.
"Is it real yet fuckers," Wolfe asks in the first caption (all quotes sic). One commenter responds at 8:45 p.m.: "what do you mean is it real yet fuckers? Some of us tried to help you." A second adds, half an hour later: "And still currently trying to help."
On the second of the grim series, a flurry of friends begins to comment, urging Wolfe to tell them where he is and to reach out to someone, anyone.
On the final photo, Wolfe comments: "Im leakinging good now."
The graphic photos began to pop up in friends' news feeds, unbidden, as other people commented them, Tripp says. "That's how most of us saw them."
By Tuesday morning, Wolfe's Facebook friends were marshaling their resources on his Facebook page to try and locate him. "I will continue doing what I can but this is a group effort I will keep all informed and have not and will not rest until he is found," one wrote.
"Apparently he was seen recently in Broken Arrow, OK," another responded. "They found his phone in a bush I guess."
Another: "When I talked to the VA Crisis Line, they are familiar with his name (I think from many of us calling last night) and they are working with the local authorities to do what they can."
Another: "battles in distress have contacted local police hospitals and firedeparts men looking for him."
The concerned men and women cast wide nets, contacting everyone they could, placing alerts on their military group pages.
Irwin told me that Broken Arrow police officers found Wolfe's body in "an unoccupied dwelling" late Tuesday night after a call from neighbors. "As a matter of fact, it was right by City Hall," he said.
Irwin, disappointment in his voice, estimated Wolfe had been gone less than a day: "He had used a knife and had cut himself up pretty bad."
Immediately after news of Wolfe's death reached his Marine friends, they set out reporting his grim photos to Facebook, so the site could remove the images from his profile. They had a good case, too: "Facebook takes threats of self-harm very seriously," the site's community standards state. "We remove any promotion or encouragement of self-mutilation, eating disorders or hard drug abuse." Elsewhere, the guidelines state: "[G]raphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence have no place on our site."
Yet when dozens of people reportedly contacted Facebook about the photos, they got a startling response. Gawker was first made aware of the issue when one of Wolfe's friends emailed us the screenshot below. "We reviewed the photo you reported for containing graphic violence and found it doesn't violate our community standards," the response reads, directly below a copy of each unsettling photograph.
Despite the intervention of so many individuals—and other advocacy groups like the VA's crisis hotline and Battles in Distress, according to Wolfe's online friends—the photos remained up.
"It hurt and outraged me," Tripp says. "When we would report the pictures they would tell us thank you for trying to make Facebook a safer place, but the images didn't violate their terms and conditions. When it clearly says images of self harm and mutilation are against their policy. How does leaving those pictures up make Facebook safer?"
His comrades began to stew inwardly, and to vent on Facebook. "I wish we could have done something," one wrote to a fellow member of their old unit. "I just hope you weren't on his other profile..."
His friend replied: "I didn't want to link that profile because I didn't want people to see that. It pisses me off that facebook won't remove those pics I've asked numerous times as have many other people."
"I hear ya," came the response. "I was hoping you didnt see it... if you need me man, I'm here."
I contacted Facebook by email, and after a few hours of go-around, one team member sent me the link to the site's "community standards." There seemed to be a disconnect, I responded: How was it possible that the bloody photos of a suicide didn't violate the community standards?
No one at Facebook would speak to me on the record. Reached on the phone, one company representative finally told me that the standards forbid "promotion or encouragement" of harm, but that they distinguish between those cases and someone who is documenting their own self-harm. "We have been advised by experts in that space that removing content could be detrimental" to efforts to rescue a person making a public cry for help, however grisly, he said. The photos, in effect, become a forum for loved ones to intervene in the troubled poster's life.
That certainly bore out in Wolfe's case, where his friends rallied to his aid on the social media site—both on his macabre photo posts, and elsewhere. But what about after intervention was moot? I asked. Surely some allowance must be made for a Facebook member who has passed on.
"If someone dies on Facebook," the representative said, "you basically have two options. One is to memorialize the account. The other option is for family members to chose to have the account removed."
In this case, the employee said, they would "temporarily" remove Wolfe's entire account, pending a ruling from his next of kin. But I got a sense that if the media hadn't gotten involved, nothing would have changed. Based on what the employee was telling me, the photos by themselves did not violate their standards and would not have otherwise come down. "The person has chosen to show those photos," the representative said. "That's why we provide families the option."
That's a common and laudable assumption: Families come first. But Wolfe's case seemed to stretch that assumption to the breaking point. First, what family wouldn't want Facebook to take the initiative and remove those pictures before getting in touch? Second, what about a vet's military family?
For further inquiries, Facebook referred me to one of their expert consultants, Dr. Dan Reidenberg, a sought-after public speaker and director of "SAVE: Suicide Awareness Voices of Education" who has established a set of suicide-prevention best practices for online companies. Reidenberg returned my call after he'd finished up a press conference on social media guidelines with TV self-help guru Dr. Drew and "edutainment" mogul Brian Dyak."These are all new boundaries, relatively speaking, with social media," he said, adding that he had worked with Facebook for "six or seven" years.
"The research tells us that there is an increased risk of 'contagion' with suicide where graphic images are posted," he said. But where to draw the line between acceptable and taboo content is difficult, all the more so for a company with hundreds of millions of users posting content: "Just the photo itself, as graphic as it is, just the image, we can see lots of that online."
Nevertheless, Reidenberg reassured me, Facebook "has been at the lead of that effort" to deal with cases in the most sensitive way possible. "They take it very seriously."
Dr. Craig Bryan, a psychology professor who runs the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, told me in an email that the images "could trigger other vulnerable peers"—but an even bigger concern to him is that they could stall the grief recovery process, especially among those who attempted to reach out and intervene. Wolfe's friends may be naturally tempted to experience survivors' guilt, a sense that they didn't do enough, Bryan says, and the photos could be a visual representation of their perceived failures:
But the reality is that his friends didn't just stand by and let it happen. They did what was reasonable and what is expected of them: they intervened and tried to save his life. The tragedy of this case, and with suicide in general, is that sometimes we don't get the desired outcome even when we do things right.
PTSD and the romance of the troubled vet get bandied about a lot in the post-Iraq, almost post-Afghanistan era. But this was no academic question. Wolfe's comrades clearly were shaken by the images, and the manner of their posting. Perhaps it deepened their sense of helplessness, or it offended their basic compassion, or it reeked of pencil-necked Silicon Valley civilians dishonoring the Dan they knew with an unfeeling bureaucratic code. Perhaps it was all of those prospects and more. God knows I felt that way, looking at the photos, not knowing Dan or his shipmates. Whatever their reasons, Facebook's policy put these men—who used the site to proudly display their toughness, their love of sports and guns and lifting and the Corps—at risk of serious, debilitating trauma and stress.
They kept themselves busy, perhaps to help them cope. Marines don't give up, but they do prioritize. As the news of Wolfe's passing hardened into reality and Facebook seemed to give them the brush-off, his shipmates began to focus on other missions. Two of them asked their shipmates for advice on how to arrange a fundraiser for Wolfe's daughter. (One of Wolfe's cousins reportedly was setting up a site for donations.)
Tributes and reminiscences began to pop up on their pages. There were questions about funeral arrangements. Perhaps most important, they began to look to each other, to really ask how each other felt, to make sure everyone knew they had help available if it was needed:
In light of Daniel Wolfe losing the fight with his demons the other night.
Warfighters, how are you doing?
We are the tightest community in the Marines, maybe the whole US Military. If you need help, sound off. I don't know any of us that wouldn't take somebody in, to help get them back in the chute. If you need a hand, a talk, a meal, or hell even a hug, you need to say something. If you are in the Houston area, contact me. I'll drop everything if need be. I know I'm not the only one.
The responses came in from all over the country.
I'm here as well an willing to drop everything. Whether I know you or not. Brothers...
If anyone needs help and is in the Massachusetts area, come see me.
Ditto. Charleston, SC
Ditto Buffalo, NY
same here in muskegn ,mi
Greater Pittsburgh, PA area
Semper Fi. Katy, texas
And on, from Las Vegas to Lexington to points between.
Finally, after my phone conversation with Facebook's representative, late in the afternoon on Wednesday—nearly two days since Wolfe had begun his very public exit—his social media profile vanished from the site.
In its place, the company substituted an image:
[Top image by Jim Cooke]